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The Hockliffe Project: Introductory Essay

M. O. Grenby

The Hockliffe Collection contains in excess of a thousand children's books which date from between 1685 and the early twentieth century. Most of the books in the collection were published between 1740 and 1840, a period which is generally considered to encompass the birth, infancy and growth to maturity of children's literature in English. Before the 1740s, only a handful of authors had directed their writing at children, few of whom, if any, saw it as their task to amuse or entertain their readers. A hundred years later, some of the classics of children's literature had been written, works which were to be enjoyed well into the twentieth century. Not only had the stories of the Arabian Nights, the Grimm Brothers and of Hans Christian Andersen been translated into English for children, but Tom Brown's School Days, The Water Babies and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland were just around the corner. The purpose of this short essay is to review the development of early children's literature in Britain and to consider how the Hockliffe Collection sheds light on this history. The Hockliffe Collection does challenge the standard account in several important respects.

Jack and the Beanstalk

Park's Surprising History of Jack and the Beanstalk, London, no date (0033 in the Hockliffe Collection).

A number of dates have been proposed as the start of children's literature in English. Which you choose depends on how you define children's literature. Since F. J. Harvey Darton published his Children's Books in England in 1932, which is still the standard book on the subject, the chief candidate has been a tiny volume titled A Little Pretty Pocket-Book, published (and probably written) by John Newbery in 1744. As Newbery announced in the frontispiece he aimed to provide 'Instruction with Delight'. Darton seized upon this, claiming that A Little Pretty Pocket-Book was the first book to try to amuse children - with pictures, games, rhymes and so on - even if it also clearly set out to teach them their alphabet. In employing entertainment to make education effective, Newbery has been congratulated for fulfilling the criteria set out by John Locke in his influential treatise of 1693, Some Thoughts Concerning Education. The newness of Locke in this regard might have been overestimated, but he was the first to emphasise the importance of education in the formation of character and the first to state openly that children ought to be treated differently at different ages. The corollary of this was that they should have a literature of their own, books which should certainly teach the child but in as lively and engaging a way as possible. A Little Pretty Pocket-Book strove to do this, and it proved to be a winning formula. Within the decade Newbery had published several other similar texts, leading up to his the most celebrated work, Goody Two Shoes of 1765 (0124 in the Hockliffe Collection is a later edition). A few competitors had also emerged. Thomas Boreman had published his Gigantick Histories in the early 1740s, some pre-dating Newbery. Mary Cooper (who called herself 'Nurse Lovechild') produced her Tommy Thumb's Pretty Song Book, a book of nursery rhymes, in 1744. And in 1749 Sarah Fielding published The Governess, a novel designed to entertain children, as well to provide them with moral guidance.

And yet there were clearly books written for children before this sudden burst of activity. Their titles give this away. Isaac Watts had published Divine Songs for the Use of Children in 1715 (0462). Benjamin Keach had published his War with the Devil: or the Young Man's Conflict with the Powers of Darkness by 1675 (0434). John Bunyan had written his Book for Boys and Girls (later called Divine Emblems) by 1686 (0405). And James Janeway's A Token for Children was first issued in 1671-72 and republished throughout the next century and a half. These were all religious books. Their authors were clearly intent on improving the spiritual health of their readers and ostensibly cared little about whether the books were enjoyed or not. This is why critics have tended not to allow them to compete for the honour of being the first proper children's book. Also disqualified on the same grounds are the dozens of other spelling books and grammar books, and courtesy books and conduct books, which were published in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Of course this raises the tricky issue of whether historians and critics are qualified to judge what did actually entertain seventeenth and eighteenth century children. Although these texts might seem very dry to modern readers, can we really be sure that they were regarded in the same light when they appeared? Historians, after all, may have been able to work towards the construction of a history of childhood - the way children were regarded and treated by adults - but they have had much more trouble writing the history of children - that is to say how children themselves thought. There is simply too little evidence. The controversy over the contemporary reception of children's books continues to be relevant to our interpretation of all children's literature.

Also predating Newbery's innovations was a further set of books almost certainly read by children but not designed exclusively for their consumption. The full title of Keach's War with the Devil , for instance, acknowledged a disparate audience. It was claimed to be Worthy of the perusal of all but chiefly intended for the instruction of the younger sort. Likewise, the famous new editions of Aesop's fables which appeared in 1692 and 1722 were no more written solely for children than had been the first edition printed in England, William Caxton's, produced in 1484. On the other hand, such fables were certainly consumed by children. Samuel Croxall, compiler of the 1722 Aesop, acknowledged this youthful readership when he asserted that Roger L'Estrange, who had produced the 1692 version, was unfit to write for 'the children of Britain' since he had been a pensioner of the Stuart kings. Indeed, Locke had recommended Aesop for children in 1693. Similarly unspecific in their appeal were the Arabian Nights stories, translated into English in 1705-8, and the fairy tales of Mother Goose and Mother Bunch (respectively Charles Perrault and Madame D'Aulnoy) which appeared in English in the mid-eighteenth century. Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress was published in 1678, Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe in 1719, and Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels in 1726,. All became mainstays of children's literature, even if they were initially designed primarily for an older readership. This question of whether literary historians can tell if books were designed for, or read by, children remains central to the study of children's literature. A significant part of the Hockliffe Collection is comprised of nursery stories, fairy tales and chapbooks about myths and heroes. It is simply impossible to say with any conviction that these texts ought to be regarded as exclusively children's books.

Blue Beard

Blue Beard, London, no date (0009).

It is possible to identify two traditions feeding into modern children's literature then. On the one hand there are those religious and conduct books which were designed for children but did not, it seems likely, particularly appeal to them. On the other hand there are the fables, fairy tales and chapbook stories which were certainly designed primarily to entertain but which were not the sole preserve of children. By and large, the argument goes, these two traditions continued as separate strands throughout the eighteenth and into the nineteenth century, seldom combining. Darton thinks a synthesis was first evident in the best of John Newbery's books. Another critic, Geoffrey Summerfield, thinks less highly of Newbery but does see the history of eighteenth century children's literature as one long war between two tendencies, 'fantasy' and 'reason'. Most of the new children's books of the later eighteenth century, he says, sought to impose religion, morality and rationality on their readers. As examples of this tendency he cites, amongst others, Ellinor Fenn, Anna Laetitia Barbauld and John Aikin, Mary Martha Sherwood, Barbara Hofland, Jane West, Dorothy and Mary Jane Kilner, Mary Meeke, Maria Hack and Sarah Trimmer. A representative sample of their work (along with that of many others of a similar stamp) may be found in the Hockliffe Collection. But Summerfield also identifies a 'counter-culture' of books which remained true to the longer standing tradition of entertainment and imagination. This is best seen in chapbooks, tales and broadsides which continued to be popular amongst both adults and children, especially, he assumes, amongst semi-literate and lower class readers. He is able to quote numerous commentators of the early nineteenth century lamenting the triumph of reason over imagination. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, for instance, famously compared new books full of trite morality (or 'goodyness' as he called it) with much the more engrossing imaginative tales he remembered from his childhood such as Jack the Giant-Killer (0023) or The Seven Champions of Christendom (0719).

Darton, Summerfield and many of their heirs have subscribed to, and even cemented, Coleridge's stigmatisation of these moral and educational books. They have started with the assumption that imaginative literature would eventually prevail in children's books - as written by Lewis Carroll, Robert Louis Stevenson and others - and they have been primarily interested in identifying milestones along that road to Alice and Treasure Island. As case studies in the attempt to throw off the 'shackles' of reason and morality these critics have picked out one or two isolated authors as worthy of consideration. William Roscoe is one. His The Butterfly's Ball (0836A) was first published in 1806. Some of the followers of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, such as Thomas Day or Maria Edgeworth, have also been recognised as significant in their attempt to construct a child-centred literature, even if they did not go so far as to provide children with what they might want, rather than what was judged to be good for them. One of the principal aims of the Hockliffe Project is to question this teleological analysis, its assumptions, and the quietly proceeding construction of a canon of early children's literature which rests upon them. The Hockliffe Collection contains substantial holdings of both 'imaginative' and 'rational' children's books but it is particularly strong on those instructional and moral texts which have so often been either dismissed or denigrated by scholars. The Hockliffe Project will seek to encourage a reassessment of their profusion, their popularity, their variety and their tendency to be more entertaining and engaging that they have any right to be according to the standard characterisation. To take just one example, the lively and engaging stories of Evenings at Home; or, The Juvenile Budget Opened (0052) by John Aikin and Mrs. Barbauld argue strongly against the charge generally levelled at them that they suppress the imagination.


John Aikin and Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Evenings at Home, 13th edition, London, 1823 (0053).

If those who have investigated early children's literature have been guilty of evaluating texts according to how they fit into an over-arching history of literature they have also tended to give too much emphasis to literary texts and to literary merit. Recent studies have concentrated on just a handful of authors, from Sarah Fielding to Mary Wollstonecraft, Maria Edgeworth and Mary Sherwood. The Hockliffe Collection demonstrates just how small a sample of late eighteenth early nineteenth century children's literature this is. In the section of the Hockliffe Collection designated 'Stories Before 1850' there are over two hundred prose fiction texts. Three-quarters of these are either anonymous or by authors so obscure as to have so far escaped any sustained scholarly inquiry. Yet many of these were successful and went through multiple editions. For the children of the time, in other words, these books were just as significant as those which have been taken as representative because they were by known authors or have been retrospectively evaluated as possessing literary merit. Moreover, the Hockliffe Collection places all these literary texts in their true context, as just one genre amongst many which were available to, and consumed by, children. Indeed, fiction makes up less than 30% of the pre-1840 holdings of the Hockliffe Collection. The collection has since its inception been divided into fairly crude, but still useful, categories. Of these the largest is indeed fiction, but only just. When 'Books of instruction' and 'Bibles and hymns' are added together they easily exceed the fiction. Likewise books of natural science, mathematics, geography and history, when added together, outnumber the 'literary' texts. And yet these works, clearly a central part of early children's literature, have been largely ignored by scholars. Just as Coleridge did, they have regarded these 'numberless writers of small, but luminous works on arts, trades, and sciences, natural history, and astronomy' as guilty of having held in check the true, imaginative impulses of children's literature. (Summerfield, 58)

When we include the non-literary texts the history of children's literature shifts significantly. Newbery might have claimed to be aiming for instruction with delight, but the emphasis of most of his works was squarely on the former. As the fifteen Newbery editions in the Hockliffe Collection show, his output was dominated by texts such as A Spelling-Dictionary of the English Language. For the use of young gentlemen, ladies and foreigners (0605) or Arithmetic Made Familiar and Easy (1168) - or for arithmetic read grammar, or logic, or geography. The sheer numbers of instructional books in the Hockliffe Collection, whether cast in a fictional form or not, argues that they, rather than the 'imaginative' literary texts, should take centre-stage in any account of the development of children's literature. This change of emphasis becomes important when we ask why it was that children's literature suddenly got off the ground in the mid-eighteenth century. In the standard account, as outlined above, it was the innovations of Newbery, Boreman, Sarah Fielding and others, with their Lockean acknowledgement that children's desire to be amused (and need to be so if they are to learn effectively), which inspired the first wave of recognisably modern children's books. If this shift did not in fact take place, or was not so dramatic as has been thought, and if books of instruction continued to dominate, we must look for other reasons for the sudden burgeoning of children's literature in mid-century. Hints at the reasons for this take-off can be found by approaching children literature not from a literary perspective but through an investigation into the changing society of the mid-eighteenth century.

In recent years social historians have recognised that it is only in relatively recent times that the family began to be centred around the child, as it is now. Philippe Ariès, in his influential book Centuries of Childhood, was the first to argue that, from the seventeenth century onwards, the European family began to take on its modern, nuclear form, with a tight unit of just parents and children forming the household rather than an extended family or kin. Lawrence Stone, in his The Family, Sex and Marriage, translated this into a British context, arguing that in fact the big shift took place in the eighteenth century. Stone, whose ideas have been challenged, but whose central thesis has not been discredited, contended that alongside the development of these new family structures, different kinds of affective relationships evolved, especially between parents and children. Declining infant mortality rates and an increasing secularisation of society, which meant that children were no longer regarded as corrupt sinners whose soul it must be the first priority to safeguard, were also factors contributing to profound changes in the experience of children in the eighteenth century. For the first time each child was treated as an individual. And in addition, long before Rousseau, children started to be treated as children, rather than simply as incipient adults. There was an end to the laissez-faire attitude towards childhood which, except in the case of religious instruction, had previously prevailed. A new emphasis on the importance of education began to emerge. Indeed, it can be argued that education became a social and political imperative after the later seventeenth century witnessed the ebbing away of the former power of patriarchal authority, both at the level of the family and the nation. With the Stuart kings, Robert Filmer's Patriarchia, and the heads of a traditional clan and kinship networks having lost much of their authority, it no longer seemed possible to presume that a child would naturally find his or her way into his or her proper station in life. It became an urgent necessity to educate children into their proper place. For all these reasons, Locke's Some Thoughts Concerning Education summed up the hopes and anxieties of its age. It had asserted that a child's mind was a tabula rasa ready to be formed, that character, ability and even station in life could all be determined by education. It was so rapidly accepted because its readership was already inclined to agree, because, in other words, its time had come.

And it is in this context that we must place children's literature. The growth of a culture of individualism, which Stone posited, would have supported the rise of children's literature, for reading is often a solitary activity (and was increasingly so, according to those who posit a ‘reading revolution’ in this period). Stone has also speculated that once this child-orientated family type had developed, adults began to pamper their children, and J. H. Plumb has similarly maintained that over the course of the eighteenth century children became ‘luxury objects’ on whom their parents were prepared to spend larger and larger sums of money. Books constituted the obvious commodity on which parents and relatives might spend their money, putatively providing the child with both pleasure and instruction. In this sense, children’s books are commodities like any other which fuelled what historians have called the ‘consumer revolution’. Neil McKendrick and others have seen the eighteenth century as a time when more people than ever before acquired material possessions. What had once been luxuries became necessities. Fashionability replaced durability as the chief estimable quality of commodities. Whilst their ancestors would have inherited many items, the consumers of the eighteenth century tended to purchase them for themselves. Whilst many items had previously been purchased only once in a lifetime, in the eighteenth century they were being bought several times over. All of this applies to children’s books. Although it is impossible to tell with absolute certainty, it seems more than likely that children’s books were, by the middle of the century, being owned by members of the middle and even lower classes who would previously not have had access to them. Judging by the condition and inscriptions of books in the Hockliffe Collection few appear to have had multiple owners (although there are some exceptions), suggesting that they were not handed down from generation to generation or even from sibling to sibling. There is also internal evidence that the expectation was that an individual child would possess several or even many books. Why else would publishers place advertisements for other books at the end of, or within, their works? In a number of the books it is made clear that the stories’ protagonists have read numerous works for children.

The main motor of this consumer revolution, it has been generally thought, was social aspiration. This was the mania of the mid-eighteenth century if contemporary commentators are to be believed. Henry Fielding, for example, wrote in 1750 that 'while the Nobleman will emulate the Grandeur of a Prince and the Gentleman will aspire to the proper state of a Nobleman; the Tradesman steps from behind his Counter into the vacant place of the Gentleman… [and] the very Dregs of the People … aspire still to a degree beyond that which belongs to them.' (McKendrick et al, 25.) As Fielding's observation suggests, both spreading consumerism and the erosion of social boundaries that it was said to lead to were much regretted in certain circles. Children's literature, though, was largely free from the stigma of being an agent of social upheaval because in a Protestant, patriotic and proudly progressive country it was difficult to argue that reading should be limited to the few. Nevertheless it seems more than likely that the purchase of books for children represented a desire for social advancement on the part of the parents. To send their children to school or to buy books for them was a form of conspicuous consumption, demonstrating to everybody the status and ambition of the family. But education in itself, as Locke's Some Thoughts had suggested, was a direct means of transcending social ranks. To purchase children's books was both to emulate the manners of one's social superiors and to attempt to join their ranks, or rather to equip one's children to do so. It seems likely, for instance, that a book such as The Drawing School for Little Masters and Misses (0479) containing the most easy on concise Rules for Learning to Draw, without the Assistance of a Teacher by 'Master Michael Angelo' was designed to appeal to socially ambitious boys and girls, or actually their parents, who would like to possess all the refined skills of the élite but who could not afford private tutors.

On the other hand, the consumers of these books were not quite so emulous of the élite that they only craved short-cuts to fashionability. Instructional books still had to provide value for money - like those which filled up spare pages, or even fractions of pages, with a little natural history or an extra sonnet or two or those which crossed genres in the attempt to double their potential readership, with titles like The Illustrated Alphabet, with Poetry. Moreover, as the Hockliffe Collection shows, there were just as many books teaching useful skills than those which taught only gentility. The Book of Trades or Library of the Useful Arts was typical of many titles and was frequently reprinted, as was George Fisher’s The Instructor or Young Man’s Best Companion containing spelling, reading, writing, arithmetick, in an easier way than any yet published, and how to qualify any Person for Business without the Help of a Master (the full title of the 1740 edition makes many more detailed promises about just how it will help almost any career). The raison d’être for such books is clear. They were designed to perform a social and economic function, as well as working as literature. Though such books might seem scarcely ‘literature’, any serious study of children’s books cannot afford to ignore them. First, they were published in such quantities that they demand attention both in their own right. Second, they provide a context for the more ‘literary’ books, and the Hockliffe Collection raises the question of whether they are really so different from the other, more ‘literary’, texts. Third, such books might provide the key to understanding the sudden genesis and the burgeoning of all forms of children's literature in mid-eighteenth century Britain.

Placing all sorts of different children’s books in comparison with one another, and allowing them all to be seen in the same context, is precisely what the Hockliffe Collection encourages and enables. This is why the Hockliffe Collection is so important, and why the Hockliffe Project has ambitions significantly to amend our understanding of early British children's literature.


F. J. Harvey Darton, Children's Books in England. Five Centuries of Social Life (1932; 3rd edn., Cambridge, 1982, revised by Brian Alderson)

Geoffrey Summerfield, Fantasy and Reason. Children's Literature in the Eighteenth Century (London, 1984)

M. Nancy Cutt, Mrs. Sherwood and her books for children (Oxford, 1974)

Mitzi Myers, 'Socializing Rosamund: educational ideology and fictional form' in Children's Literature Association Quarterly, 14, 42-48

Julia Briggs, 'Women Writers and Writing for Children: From Sarah Fielding to E. Nesbit' in Gillian Avery & Julia Briggs (eds.), Children and their Books. A Celebration of the Work of Iona and Peter Opie (Oxford, 1989), 221-50

Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1550-1800, abridged edition (Harmondsworth, 1979)

J. H. Plumb, 'The New World of Children in Eighteenth-Century England', Past and Present, 67 (1975), 64-95.

Neil McKendrick, John Brewer and J. H. Plumb, The Birth of a Consumer Society. The Commericialization of Eighteenth-Century England (London, 1982)